An extraordinary coming-of-age story set at the nadir of New York City history, and in the world’s most famous and infamous park — abandoned and crumbling amid the city’s collapsed economy — Sunshine Rebels: Gotham’s Lost Tribe reveals a unique and colorful 1970’s subculture. It highlights a family that formed at the Central Park Bandshell, a family that to this day is held together by the bonds that bred them.
Events of the late 1960s and early ’70s had made them more cynical and mistrusting than their ‘hippy ancestors’. The Viet Nam War, the Kennedy, and Martin Luther King assassinations – along with issues of the day like Kent State and Attica, the Pentagon Papers, and the near-collapse of New York City – had toughened them. They were street kids, many abandoned by parents, and the system. And they fended for themselves.
New York Magazine called them a “Lost Tribe, outsiders in an outsider’s world.” Among themselves, they were known as Parkies. And their contribution to contemporary world culture is significant. Wild Style graffiti was bred at the Bandshell with legendary graffiti clubs The Rolling Thunder Writers, Soul Artists, and The Rebels. Members of the original ZOO YORK (“Dogtown East”) skateboard team were Parkies. Bandshell musicians tried and tested new, emerging music, and many went on to play with celebrated bands such as the B52s, Stray Cats, Tito Puente and others. Billy Squire also came out of the Bandshell. And three members of the Parkie clan were world-champion freestyle Frisbee players. Kerry Kollmar was one of them. And he changed the sport forever when he invented the “nail-delay” and “tapping”.
Some became legends.
Some moved on.
By 1980 the Parkie scene had all but died out. Disillusionment had taken its toll on many. And crack cocaine had taken its toll on the tribe. With the coming of AIDS and John Lennon’s death, another peace-loving era had died.
A historically important New York City story, Sunshine Rebels highlights the lives of the intriguing figures who lived communally, intensely, at times savagely, in the shadowy grounds of Central Park’s Naumburg Bandshell, the heart of reeling and broken Gotham City. In the process contributed to cultural and artistic shifts that continue to have an impact today.
1970’s NEW YORK CITY
New York City is the capital of the world. Central Park is the center of the City, and it divides New York by latitude and longitude, North and South, East and West. The Park also physically demarcates the lines between the “haves” and the “have nots” – the rich and the poor. And while this remains true today, it was never more evident than in the 1970s.
To the South of Central Park lies Wall Street, the world’s financial capital, the hub of America’s financial might. East of the Park, one finds the properties of some of the richest people on Earth. Traditionally the middle-class resides West of the Park. To the North lay Harlem and the Bronx, which in
the 1970s were some of the poorest, downtrodden, and dangerous places in America. While the City had clear-cut boundaries in the 1970s, the Parkies had few, if any. Members of the clan came from everywhere – East, North, South, and West. They came from within city limits and from far beyond, from in-state and out of state. Parkies came from rich families and poor. They were black, white, and in-between. And none of the usual demarcation points played a role in the life of the Parkies. Race, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation – none of it mattered. What mattered was who you were and how you treated your brother and your sister. The result is that Parkies became one huge family, a family that more than three decades later remains tied by the bonds that bread them sewed.
New York is a place where life is heightened, experiences are intense and magnified, and chaos is concentrated. The City is often at the fore of social and cultural shifts, and the 1970s were no exception. If American life was challenging and turbulent in the 1970s, life in New York City was arguably most punishing. The country was in turmoil, New York City was a disaster.
Social and economic strife was the norm, and New York was a dangerous place rife with crime and corruption. Even the police were corrupt, as was evidenced by the 1971 Serpico fiasco and the Knapp Commission hearings. As the ’70s wore on New Yorkers became fed up with venal politicians and a corrupt and broken system. And the City was at a boiling point.
In the midst of the turmoil, many people chose to “drop out” of mainstream society. Others simply got left behind. For many of New York’s youth who couldn’t reconcile what they heard from parents, politicians, and corporate entities, Central Park was a haven. The Bandshell and Sheep Meadow became an Eden in the middle of a crumbling concrete jungle. In the Park young rebels tested themselves, they tested their peers and tested the world. In the Park, they learned how to survive, and how to create. Boundaries were pushed, stretched, and ultimately shattered. The results were sometimes tragic, sometimes ground-breaking. In the context of chaos, of changing societal and cultural norms, social unrest, and financial tightrope-walking, Parkies thrived.
While it is difficult to pin down precisely when New York City’s youth began to congregate at Bethesda Fountain, and later at the Naumberg Bandshell, it seems clear that the first so-called “Parkies” began to congregate around 1967 when the first Rallies Against Racism were held in Sheep’s Meadow, and the Be-Ins were organized to protest against America’s involvement in Viet Nam.
Nineteen sixty-seven was the Summer of Love, a season of light and hope. It was also a time of experimentation, both socially and artistically. Jefferson Airplane came out with Surrealistic Pillow in ‘67. Rheingold began sponsoring concerts at Central Park’s Wollman Ice Rink, which later became the Schaefer Music Festival. The Doors came out with Waiting for the Sun, Hendrix cut Electric Ladyland, and on June 1, 1967, The Beatles unveiled Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, considered by many to be the best album of all time. In this milieu of changing times, the Social, Sexual, and Psychedelic Revolutions were in full swing.
But if ‘67 was a season of light and a time of and hope, 1968 and subsequent years brought darkness, disillusionment, and discontent. Nineteen sixty-eight was a leap year, and in retrospect, many might have preferred to skip over the next four years. In April of ‘68 Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later Robert Kennedy was killed. Nineteen sixty-eight also saw the protests at Columbia University, which were a revolutionary response to, among other things, the school’s association with the Institute for Defense Analysis. Bob Feldman, a well-known student activist, had discovered documents in the International Law Library that detailed Columbia’s involvement with the military think tank. The situation turned bloody when police stormed the students. More than 700 were arrested, 150 injured. In January 1969, Richard Milhous Nixon took office after narrowly defeating Hubert Humphrey.
As the decade neared a close, disaffection with politicians and the establishment could hardly be suppressed. Yet in the waning days of the 1960s, a sliver of hope remained. In 1969, from August 15th through 18th, a half-million peaceful souls gathered in Bethel, New York for the Aquarian Woodstock Music Festival. This was, perhaps, the last hopeful moment for an entire generation.
With the onset of the ’70s came more tumult and strife as America slipped further into discord with itself. Across the spectrum of social, political, and economic life, the proverbial sky seemed to be falling. On May 4th, 1970, the Kent State massacre was perpetrated barely five months into the new decade. Students had been protesting against America’s bombing of Cambodia. Four of them were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen and many more were injured. America was polarized in 1970, and social entropy was taking hold. Nearly every night network news brought it home. In April The Beatles disbanded. In September and October, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died within three weeks of each other. And the turmoil continued.
In January of 1971, the U.S. bombed Laos and Cambodia (again) only days after Congress had outlawed U.S. presence in both countries. In June, The New York Times published The Pentagon Papers, which “demonstrated…that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance.” September of ‘71 saw the Attica uprising, the bloodiest prison confrontation in United States history. Ten hostages and 29 inmates were killed at the end of a five-day stand-off. Scores more were injured. In July of 1971, an overdose took Jim Morrison’s life.
The list of deplorable actions and heartrending events that took place from the late 60’s to early 70’s is staggering. On June 18, 1972, The Washington Post broke the story on Watergate. The final betrayal had been perpetrated. The leader of the free world was a felon. On August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford took the office of the Presidency under the 25th Constitutional Amendment. On September 8th – precisely one month after Nixon resigned – Ford pardoned the felon.
In 1964 Jerry Weinberg, a well-known student activist coined the maxim “never trust anyone over thirty”. Ten years later, it might have been not have been a surprise that many of America’s youth took those words as gospel. The public’s trust was shattered. And adolescents were more than disillusioned. They were disgusted and angry and overlooked. On April 30, 1975, just eight months after Nixon resigned, the world witnessed the fall of Saigon. And on May 15th the last official battle took place between the United States and Vietnamese troops. The war was over. Finally.
But by now the Nation was exhausted, divided, and damaged. To use Nixon’s own words “Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic.” Nixon had been talking about the Viet Nam War. But one could easily use these words to quantify much of what had happened in American life for the past decade. It seemed that in just a few short years America had been torn asunder by those we entrusted to serve and protect. Martin Luther King and the Kennedys had been murdered – not without mystery. Many of our musical heroes were dead, as were 58,193 (officially) American boys. Politicians were liars and cheats. The so-called adults had driven us apart, and into the ground – socially, economically, and generationally. No longer could America’s youth trust politicians, “the system” or what they heard from the so-called adults. The mindset of the country’s youth had gone from a seeming blissful naivety to a jaded cynicism and anger. Chaotic unrest permeated every corner of society. For some the tipping point was Watergate. For others, it was simply the culmination of years of systematic brutality and lies. Whatever the cause, America’s youth – the youth of New York City, at least – had had enough. They were disabused and disgusted. As they approached adulthood they simply weren’t listening anymore. And they had no interest in integrating into a system they saw as corrupt, broken, diseased.
Mid-1970’s – New York City . . .
©Copyright 2016, Stephen Snow. All Rights Reserved.